PITTSBURGH (AP) When Dion Lewis read his stats line at the end of each game, it almost seemed as if he was looking at the numbers for another player.
Only 27 yards against New Hampshire. A mere 41 yards against Miami. Only 63 yards against Notre Dame, down from 152 yards against the Fighting Irish last season.
The same running back who ended last season with eight consecutive 100-yard games, six for 150 yards or more, started this season with no 100-yard performances through six games.
Only Lewis wasn’t the same back as a season ago, and he knew it. So did Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt.
The quick burst to the line of scrimmage was missing, and so was the acceleration once he passed it. Lewis also was tentative, almost as if he was planning out each run rather than letting the play come to him naturally.
As Lewis struggled, backup Ray Graham took over to run for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games. It almost seemed as if last season’s second-team All-American was about to become a second-teamer.
Lewis finally began looking like himself by running for 78 yards on 14 carries during a 45-14 rout of Syracuse. The sophomore built on that performance by gaining 130 yards on 17 carries during a 41-21 victory over Rutgers on Saturday.
“It felt good,” Lewis said. “It was a little bit of a struggle I went through at the beginning of the season, but it happened in one game. I’ve just got to put it behind me now.”
On the Pitt sideline, Wannstedt knew what he was seeing: The Dion Lewis who ran for 1,799 yards as a freshman in 2009.
“You just had this feeling in your stomach that when Dion was getting the ball, it was the old Dion,” Wannstedt said. “Every play he had the chance of breaking. Why? I don’t know. But he was in sync and he was into it. He was making the cuts, he was making the reads that he’s capable of making.”
The Panthers still aren’t sure why Lewis started so slowly; he had 284 yards through his first five games, down from 580 last season. Graham gained nearly that many yards in a single game by running for 277 yards against Florida International.
Splitting time with Graham certainly didn’t help Lewis.
“It’s tough to get into a flow when you switch in and out, but I was able to get into a rhythm last week,” Lewis said.
As the Panthers (4-3, 2-0 in Big East) prepare for Saturday’s home game against Louisville (4-3, 1-1), they understand that getting more games like this from Lewis are essential if they’re to win the conference.
With Lewis complementing sophomore Tino Sunseri (21 of 27, 307 yards), Pitt had a 100-yard rusher, a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard receiver (Jon Baldwin, 139 yards) in the same game for the first time in 10 years. Pitt also scored 40 points-plus in successive Big East games for the first time.
“If you look at our team now, compared to five or six weeks ago, you’re seeing improvement in the offensive line,” Wannstedt said. “You’re seeing improvement in our running game. You’re seeing improvement in Tino Sunseri.”
And in Lewis, whose slow start was matched by the Panthers, who lost non-conference games to Utah, Miami and Notre Dame. Still, the Panthers would play in a BCS bowl if they win the Big East.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on offense,” Lewis said. “If we execute and click and we’re all playing as one, we’re a dangerous team and that showed (against Rutgers). Now we’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Especially Lewis, who is certain Pitt won’t change its offensive personality even though the fast-improving Sunseri has thrown seven touchdowns in two games. Pitt has rushed for 1,118 yards in seven games, down only about 100 yards from last season’s 1,222 yards. That’s because Graham has gained 645 yards in six games, an average of 107.5 yards.
“We’re still a running team,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s really getting their assignments now. We’ve still got a lot of work, and we know we can play even better. … If we execute, we feel that we’ll win every game.”